WRITE for ATol ADVERTISE MEDIA KIT GET ATol BY EMAIL ABOUT ATol CONTACT US
Asia Time Online - Daily News
             
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese



    Front Page
     Feb 4, 2009
Page 1 of 2
DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA
Crisis looms at the Pentagon
By Chalmers Johnson

Like much of the rest of the world, Americans know that the United States automotive industry is in the grips of what may be a fatal decline. Unless it receives emergency financing and undergoes significant reform, it is undoubtedly headed for the graveyard in which many American industries are already buried, including those that made televisions and other consumer electronics, many types of scientific and medical equipment, machine tools, textiles and much earth-moving equipment - and that's to name only the most obvious candidates. They all lost their competitiveness to newly emerging economies that were

 

able to outpace them in innovative design, price, quality, service and fuel economy, among other things.

A similar, if far less well known, crisis exists when it comes to the military-industrial complex. That crisis has its roots in the deceitful practices that have long characterized the high command of the armed forces, civilian executives of the armaments industries, and Congressional opportunists looking for pork-barrel projects, defense installations for their districts, or even bribes for votes.

Given our economic crisis, the estimated trillion dollars we spend each year on the military and its weaponry is simply unsustainable. Even if present fiscal constraints no longer existed, we would still have misspent too much of our tax revenues on too few, overly expensive, overly complex weapons systems that leave us ill-prepared to defend the country in a real military emergency. We face a double crisis at the Pentagon: we can no longer afford the pretense of being the Earth's sole superpower, and we cannot afford to perpetuate a system in which the military-industrial complex makes its fortune off inferior, poorly designed weapons.

Double crisis at the Pentagon
This self-destructive system of bloated budgets and purchases of the wrong weapons has persisted for so long thanks to the aura of invincibility surrounding the armed forces and a mistaken belief that jobs in the arms industry are as valuable to the economy as jobs in the civilian sector.

Recently, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen began to advocate nothing less than protecting the Pentagon budget by pegging defense spending to a fixed percentage of gross domestic product (GDP, the total value of goods and services produced by the economy). This would, of course, mean simply throwing out serious strategic analysis of what is actually needed for national defense. Mullen wants, instead, to raise the annual defense budget in the worst of times to at least 4% of GDP. Such a policy is clearly designed to deceive the public about ludicrously wasteful spending on weapons systems which has gone on for decades.

It is hard to imagine any sector of the American economy more driven by ideology, delusion and propaganda than the armed services. Many people believe that our military is the largest, best equipped and most invincible among the world's armed forces. None of these things are true, but our military is, without a doubt, the most expensive to maintain. Each year, we Americans account for nearly half of all global military spending, an amount larger than the next 45 nations together spend on their militaries annually.

Equally striking is the fact that the military seems increasingly ill-adapted to the types of wars that Pentagon strategists agree the United States is most likely to fight in the future, and is, in fact, already fighting in Afghanistan - insurgencies led by non-state actors. While the Department of Defense (DoD) produces weaponry meant for such wars, it is also squandering staggering levels of defense appropriations on aircraft, ships and futuristic weapons systems that fascinate generals and admirals, and are beloved by military contractors mainly because their complexity runs up their cost to astronomical levels.

That most of these will actually prove irrelevant to the world in which we live matters not a whit to their makers or purchasers. Thought of another way, the stressed out American taxpayer, already supporting two disastrous wars and the weapons systems that go with them, is also paying good money for weapons that are meant for fantasy wars, for wars that will only be fought in the battlescapes and war-gaming imaginations of Defense Department "planners".

The air force and the army are still planning as if, in the reasonably near future, they were going to fight an old-fashioned war of attrition against the Soviet Union, which disappeared in 1991; while the navy, with its 11 large aircraft-carrier battle groups, is, as William S Lind has written, "still structured to fight the Imperial Japanese navy".

Lind, a prominent theorist of so-called fourth-generation warfare (insurgencies carried out by groups such as al-Qaeda), argues that "the navy's aircraft-carrier battle groups have cruised on mindlessly for more than half a century, waiting for those Japanese carriers to turn up. They are still cruising today, into, if not beyond, irrelevance … Submarines are today's and tomorrow's capital ships; the ships that most directly determine control of blue waters."

In December 2008, Franklin "Chuck" Spinney, a former high-ranking civilian in the Pentagon's Office of Systems Analysis (set up in 1961 to make independent evaluations of Pentagon policy) and a charter member of the "Fighter Mafia" of the 1980s and 1990s, wrote, "As has been documented for at least 20 years, patterns of repetitive habitual behavior in the Pentagon have created a self-destructive decision-making process. This process has produced a death spiral."

As a result, concluded Spinney, inadequate amounts of wildly overpriced equipment are purchased, "new weapons [that] do not replace old ones on a one for one basis". There is also "continual pressure to reduce combat readiness", a "corrupt accounting system" that "makes it impossible to sort out the priorities", and a readiness to believe that old solutions will work for the current crisis.

Failed reform efforts
There's no great mystery about the causes of the deep dysfunction that has long characterized the Pentagon's weapons procurement system. In 2006, Thomas Christie, former head of Operational Test and Evaluation, the most senior official at the Department of Defense for testing weapons and a Pentagon veteran of half a century, detailed more than 35 years of efforts to reform the weapons acquisition system.

These included the 1971 Fitzhugh (or Blue Ribbon) Commission, the 1977 Steadman Review, the 1981 Carlucci Acquisition Initiatives, the 1986 Packard Commission, the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act, the 1989 Defense Management Review, the 1990 "Streamlining Review" of the Defense Science Board, the 1993-1994 report of the Acquisition Streamlining Task Force and of the Defense Science Board, the late 1990s Total System Performance Responsibility initiative of the air force, and the Capabilities-Based Acquisition approach of the Missile Defense Agency of the first years of this century.

Christie concluded: "After all these years of repeated reform efforts, major defense programs are taking 20 to 30 years to deliver less capability than planned, very often at two to three times the costs and schedules planned." He also added the following observations:
Launching into major developments without understanding key technical issues is the root cause of major cost and schedule problems ... Costs, schedules, and technical risks are often grossly understated at the outset ... There are more acquisition programs being pursued than DoD can possibly afford in the long term ...

By the time these problems are acknowledged, the political penalties incurred in enforcing any major restructuring of a program, much less its cancellation, are too painful to bear. Unless someone is willing to stand up and point out that the emperor has no clothes, the US military will continue to hemorrhage taxpayer dollars and critical years while acquiring equipment that falls short of meeting the needs of troops in the field.
The inevitable day of reckoning, long predicted by Pentagon critics, has, I believe, finally arrived. Our problems are those of a very rich country which has become accustomed over the years to defense budgets that are actually jobs programs and also a major source of pork for the use of politicians in their re-election campaigns.

Given the present major recession, the depths of which remain unknown, the United States has better things to spend its money on than Nimitz-class aircraft carriers at a price of $6.2 billion each (the cost of the USS George HW Bush, launched in January 2009, our tenth such ship) or aircraft that can cruise at a speed of Mach 2 (1,352 miles - 2.176 kilometers - per hour).

However, don't wait for the Pentagon to sort out such matters. If it has proven one thing over the past decades, it's that it is thoroughly incapable of reforming itself. According to Christie, "Over the past 20 or so years, the DoD and its components have deliberately and systematically decimated their in-house technical capabilities to the point where there is little, if any, competence or initiative left in the various organizations tasked with planning and executing its budget and acquisition programs."

Gunning for the air force
President Barack Obama has almost certainly retained Robert M Gates as secretary of defense in part to give himself some bipartisan cover as he tries to come to grips with the bloated defense budget. Gates is also sympathetic to the desire of a few reformers in the Pentagon to dump the Lockheed-Martin F-22 "Raptor" supersonic stealth fighter, a plane designed to meet the Soviet Union's last proposed, but never built, interceptor.

The air force's old guard and its allies in Congress are already fighting back aggressively. In June 2008, Gates fired secretary of the air force Michael W Wynne and air force chief of staff General T Michael Moseley. Though he was undoubtedly responding to their fervent support for the F-22, his cover explanation was their visible failure to adequately supervise the accounting and control of nuclear weapons.

In 2006, the air force had managed to ship to Taiwan four high-tech nose cone fuses for Minutemen inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM) warheads instead of promised helicopter batteries, an error that went blissfully undetected until March 2008. Then, in August 2007, a B-52 bomber carrying six armed nuclear cruise missiles flew across much of the country from Minot air force base in North Dakota to Barksdale air force base in Louisiana. This was in direct violation of standing orders against such flights over the United States.

As Julian Barnes and Peter Spiegel of the Los Angeles Times noted in June 2008, "Tensions between the Air Force and Gates have been growing for months," mainly over Gates' frustration about the F-22 and his inability to get the air force to deploy more pilotless aircraft to the various war zones. They were certainly not improved when Wynne, a former senior vice president of General Dynamics, went out of his way to cross Gates, arguing publicly that "any president would be damn happy to have more F-22s around if we had to get into a fight with China".

It catches something of the power of the military-industrial complex that, despite his clear desire on the subject, Gates has not yet found the nerve - or the political backing - to pull the plug on the F-22; nor has he even dared to bring up the subject of canceling its more expensive and technically complicated successor, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

More than 20 years ago, Chuck Spinney wrote a classic account of the now-routine bureaucratic scams practiced within the Pentagon to ensure that Congress would appropriate funds for dishonestly advertised and promoted weapons systems and then prevent their cancelation when the fraud comes to light. In a paper he entitled "Defense Power Games", of which his superiors deeply disapproved, Spinney outlined two crucial Pentagon gambits meant to lock in such weaponry: "front-loading" and "political engineering".

It should be understood at the outset that all actors involved, including the military officers in charge of projects, the members of Congress who use defense appropriations to buy votes within their districts, and the contractors who live off the ensuing lucrative contracts, utilize these two scams. It is also important to understand that neither front-loading nor political engineering is an innocent or morally neutral maneuver. They both involve criminal intent to turn on the spigot of taxpayer money and then to jam it so that it cannot be turned off. They are de arguer practices of our military-industrial complex.

Front-loading is the practice of appropriating funds for a new weapons project based solely on assurances by its official sponsors about what it can do. This happens long before a prototype has been built or tested, and invariably involves the quoting of unrealistically low unit costs for a sizeable order. Assurances are always given that the system's technical requirements will be simple or have already been met. Low-balling future costs, an intrinsic aspect of front-loading, is an old Defense Department trick, a governmental version of bait-and-switch. (What is introduced as a great bargain regularly turns out to be a grossly expensive lemon.)

Political engineering is the strategy of awarding contracts in as many different Congressional districts as possible. By making voters and Congressional incumbents dependent on military money, the Pentagon's political engineers put pressure on them to continue supporting front-loaded programs even after their true costs become apparent.

Front-loading and political engineering generate several typical features in the weapons that the Pentagon then buys for its arsenal. These continually prove unnecessarily expensive, are prone to break down easily, and are often unworkably complex. They tend to come with inadequate supplies of spare parts and ammunition, since there is not enough money to buy the numbers that are needed. They also force the services to repair older weapons and keep them in service much longer than is normal or wise. (For example, the B-52 bomber, which went into service in 1955, is still on active duty.)

Even though extended training would seem to be a necessary corollary of the complexity of such weapons systems, the excessive cost actually leads to reductions in training time for pilots and others. In the long run, it is because of such expedients and short-term fixes that American casualties may increase and, sooner or later, battles or wars may be lost.

For example, Northrop-Grumman's much touted B-2 stealth bomber has proven to be almost totally worthless. It is too delicate to deploy to harsh climates without special hangars first being built to protect it at ridiculous expense; it cannot fulfill any combat missions that older designs were not fully adequate to perform; and - at a total cost of $44.75 billion for only 21 bombers - it wastes resources needed for real combat situations.

Instead, in military terms, the most unexpectedly successful post-Vietnam aircraft has been the Fairchild A-10, unflatteringly nicknamed the "Warthog". It is the only close-support aircraft ever developed by the US Air Force. Its task is to loiter over battlefields and assist ground forces in disposing of obstinate or formidable targets, which is not something that fits comfortably with the air force's hot-shot self-image.

Some 715 A-10s were produced and they served with great effectiveness in the first Gulf War in 1991. All 715 cumulatively cost less than three B-2 bombers. The A-10 is now out of production because the air force establishment favors extremely fast aircraft that fly in straight lines at high altitudes rather than aircraft that are useful in battle. In the Afghan war, the air force has regularly inflicted heavy casualties on innocent civilians at least in part because it tries to attack ground targets from the air with inappropriately high-performance equipment.

Using the F-22 to fight the F-16
The military-industrial complex is today so confident of its skills in gaming the system that it does not hesitate to publicize how many workers in a particular district will lose their jobs if a particular project is canceled. Threats are also made - and put into effect - to withhold political contributions from uncooperative congressional representatives.

As Spinney recalls, "In July 1989, when some members of Congress began to build a coalition aimed at canceling the B-2, Northrop Corporation, the B-2's prime contractor, retaliated by releasing data which had previously been classified showing that tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in profits were at risk in 46 states and 383 congressional districts." The B-2 was not canceled.

Southern California's biggest private employers are Boeing

Continued 1 2  


Military reform 30 years on (Nov 27,'08)

Weapons come second (Nov 26,'08)

US military ripe for a fight with Obama
(Nov 24,'08)

We have the money
(Sep 30,'08)


1. Who are the 'extraordinary' Muslims?

2. Save less, breed more

3. Taliban ideology echoes across the valley

4. Russia in outer darkness

5. Beijing strikes out against Tibet

6. Political goons shock India

7. Ahmadinejad rides the American tide

8. Davos under fire

9. Inflationism, the bane of capitalism

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Feb 2, 2009)

 
 



All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
© Copyright 1999 - 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110